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Recently, my sister, Janet, and I were having lunch at the Pickled Owl in Hurleyville. We were surprised to find a short stack of cards on the table, held together with a diminutive clothespin. On each was a question such as “What famous person, dead or alive, would you like to meet?” or “If you could live anywhere, where would it be?” We had so much fun responding to the questions that we grabbed the piles from other unattended tables and answered those as well. Apparently, the Pickled Owl’s owner created the cards to encourage patrons to converse with each other instead of staring at their cell phones while they ate.
Janet and I liked the idea so much that we went home and constructed our own cards with the idea that we would bring them on our upcoming trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Without conferring or looking at each other’s, we wrote out questions on both sides of the cards, placed them in a pouch and brought them on our trip.
Many of the guests at Hotel Las Mariposas return year after year; this was only our second stay. We were happy to find that Suzanne from Tennessee, whom we’d met the previous year, would be there when we were. When we mentioned our experience with the cards, she enthusiastically responded that she’d love to see them and felt sure that other guests would be game. At Suzanne’s urging, we brought out the cards one evening and a half-dozen people, some new acquaintances and others we’d met last year, were sitting around a long table situated on the lovely courtyard patio—sipping wine, mezcal, or tequila and nibbling on guacamole with salty plantain chips and Oaxacan string cheese. To our surprise, the group was not only open to responding to the questions but began to request that we bring out the cards on subsequent evenings. I was amazed at how honest and forthcoming everyone was.
One of the questions I’d written which had special appeal, given my interest in food, was: “What would be your last meal, if you could have anything you wanted?” I was slightly embarrassed when Janet chose dishes I had made for her that have become favorites. “I’d start with Jude’s French onion soup; then her rare duck breast with mango and fig sauce served with cheesy creamed spinach.” Her dessert, however, was not of my making. “Warm apple pie with a scoop of coffee ice cream, not too close to the pie,” she concluded. Anita went whole-hog: “First, I’d have lobster bisque and New England clam chowder,” she said. I looked at her wide-eyed. “What? It’s my last meal,” she protested, “what does it matter if it’ll kill me?” Janet momentarily reconsidered having some shrimp, which she is allergic to, but stuck with her original menu. Anita finished up her meal description with double portions of heart-stopping carbs, proteins and sweets.
Jose, visiting Las Mariposas from his home in Guanajuato, Mexico, concentrated more on the libations to go with his food. Whatever he chose to eat, he added, “With tequila.” And for dessert, we asked? “Tequila, of course.”
Other people piped up with cuisines from around the world. Sue, a former Spanish teacher who visits Spain as often as Mexico, described a Spanish dish of mariscada (mixed seafood) served over saffron rice and concluded her meal with flan. Another person wanted the seven-mole sampler served just a few blocks from our hotel, while someone with a sweet tooth chose a meal composed only of desserts.
Rick, also from Tennessee, looked thoughtful when it was his turn. “Lemme think a minute,” he said with his slow southern drawl. A second later he was nodding his head, having made up his mind. “Aah have to admit Aah’m a meat’n potatas kinda guy, so that’s what Aah’d chose for mah main. For dessert Aah’d have mah favorite dezert, which is, of course, bananna puddin’.’” Everyone at the table smiled and I nearly fell off my chair. “Did you just say, bananna puddin’?” I asked, echoing his pronunciation as best I could. I wasn’t trying to make fun of him, honestly, but I’d never heard someone pronounce pudding without the “g,” and something about the way he said banana, elongating the “n” sound, sent it over the top. I’d never even heard of banana pudding. Rick smiled broadly and shrugged. Luckily, for me, he had a sense of humor and generously allowed me to gently kid him in the days to come, by asking if he’d gotten a hold of any banana puddin’ lately.